The making of a boogeyman

While Republicans demonize him, Al Sharpton's influence has never been greater.

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In the opening moments of an otherwise unremarkable edition of CNN's Crossfire last week -- this one on the Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton U.S. Senate race -- conservative co-host Mary Matalin launched an attack on the first lady.

Clinton would be traveling to a Harlem church that night, Matalin explained, and her true purpose was "to suck up to Al Sharpton," who, she said, had been called "a professional monger of racial hatred, a career inciter of race violence."

"Isn't there a way to show your support of the minority community," Matalin asked, "without kissing the ring and other parts of Al Sharpton's anatomy?"

Problem was, Sharpton had nothing to do with the Harlem church event where Clinton was speaking. In fact, he wasn't even there.

Welcome to the GOP racial political strategy circa 2000, where the Rev. Al Sharpton -- a longtime controversial fixture on New York's political scene -- has become a national black boogeyman: a la Jesse Jackson in 1984, or Willie Horton in 1988, or Louis Farrakhan, or ... you get the idea.

Consider some developments of the last few weeks: The Republican National Committee puts together a "backgrounder" on Sharpton's past (titled "Al Sharpton: A Chronology of Hate"); Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., introduces a resolution condemning Sharpton; Sharpton is featured as the cover story in National Review, which later quotes a former Nixon and Reagan speech writer advising Gov. George W. Bush to "Willie Hortonize Al Sharpton" during the campaign.

Sharpton rode through Washington on Wednesday, stuffed into a charcoal pinstripe three-piece suit, his hair pushed back wildly, riding in the front with his arm slung over the seat, and frequently flashing a sly grin at his questioner in the back. "They needed a figure that, if they called his name to white America, he represents black protest to them," Sharpton says. "And I'm the candidate this year."

Sharpton -- who yesterday filed a defamation lawsuit against RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson for remarks he made about Sharpton in the Washington Post (accusing him, among other things, of causing a man's death in a riot) -- insisted that it is more accurate to compare him to Jesse Jackson than Willie Horton.

"They're doing me more like Jesse than like Horton," he says. "Willie Horton was a criminal. I'm a civil rights leader."

Truth is, he's probably somewhere in between. Over the years, he has brought attention to important issues of racial discrimination and police brutality, rallying people around incidents like last year's shooting by four police officers of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

But a list of his unsavory behavior could fill a book: associations with organized crime figures; acting as an informant for the FBI; making inflammatory remarks about Jews that come grotesquely close to anti-Semitism (his nearly synonymous use of "diamond merchants" to refer to Jews). Then there was his smearing of numerous law-enforcement officials who investigated the allegations of rape (eventually proven false) of teenager Tawana Brawley, which finally caused a state jury to find him responsible for defaming a former assistant prosecutor. Finally, Sharpton led pickets of a Harlem store owned by a Jewish man who he attacked as a "white interloper." One of the protesters eventually stormed the store, shot three people, set the store on fire, shot himself and left seven others dead.

Despite this unsavory past, Sharpton has remained a man-to-see of sorts in New York for Democrats -- and, on more than one occasion, Republicans -- for more than a decade. In 1992, in a race for the U.S. Senate, he drew roughly 166,000 votes, an undeniable base making him a one-man third party.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, spoke of Democrats dalliances with Sharpton the way a choreographer might discuss an upcoming composition.

"They have to dance around him and get as close as they can to him without getting found out," he said. "If they have black constituencies of any kind, they don't want him running around banging them. He is a self-contained political party; 170,000 votes. That's not somebody you want to have angry with you."

As a result, a parade of candidates and officials in New York have met with Sharpton, and some have even campaigned with him. Sharpton has apologized for some of his past remarks. (He says he shouldn't have referred to the "interloper" in Harlem as "white" and says he regrets his smears of former Attorney General Robert Abrams, whose office investigated the Brawley matter.) And every few years, it seems, we are treated to a slew of articles about the "new" and "mainstreamed" Al Sharpton. The tone of these articles ranges from adulatory (the Village Voice) to outraged (National Review, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Slate).

Since assuming the mayoralty, Giuliani has had little use for any such talk of a new and improved Sharpton. Since the fatal police shooting of an unarmed security guard two weeks ago, Giuliani has sought to link Hillary Clinton to Sharpton at nearly every turn, repeatedly accusing her of "reading from Al Sharpton's script." A national fund-raising letter by the mayor's Senate campaign also invokes his name.

Giuliani and Sharpton have battled for years. But it was this year's presidential race -- where Sharpton met with both Al Gore and Bill Bradley -- as well as the run of the hated Hillary Clinton, that made Sharpton into a national target for Republicans.

"What really got us into this was when [the Democrats] gave Al Sharpton the honor of the first question in the debate at the Apollo in Harlem" in February, said RNC spokesman Chris Paulitz, "which is an honor that, in my mind, should be bestowed on a civil rights leader. Instead, they give it to a hate-monger. That's what really put it on the map for us and that's when we really started going after him."

In the National Review, Jeffrey Hart, a former speech writer for Reagan and Nixon, suggested Sharpton as a prime target for George W. Bush's television ads: "Shots of Gore and Sharpton with Freddy's Fashion Mart burning in the background. Buddhist nuns and Tawana will be fun to kick around."

Asked for other potential figures that Bush could use to tar the Democrats, Hart immediately named California Rep. Maxine Waters and Louis Farrakhan, both African-American.

So, is Sharpton the target because he's black? "I don't think so at all," said Hart. "I think it's his record."

But some are unswayed by that argument. "This is a party that, in 1964, learned that racism is profitable for them, and they've done it ever since," said Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the NAACP. "Either through Willie Horton types of things or through more subtle code words, like quotas or busing. These are appeals to racist elements among voters ... and they love it."

Bond acknowledged Sharpton's checkered past, but said, "Whatever baggage Sharpton brings bumps into the baggage that Giuliani brings. He hasn't seen a police shooting that he can't explain. And when Giuliani invokes Sharpton's name seven times in a week -- I mean, come on. Is this the only way he relates to black New Yorkers? To use a man who is admired by them as a foil for his politics?"

But Sharpton is not merely a black face. His whole demeanor -- from his bizarre seemingly inflatable hairdo, to his considerable girth -- make him an appealing target.

"He's very vivid," said Hart. "I think he's extremely bright, a colorful character, so he will make news."

A prominent Republican consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, analyzed his party's use of Sharpton with candid detachment: "It's a tool to make people cross-pressure the Democratic base. If Democrats embrace Sharpton they get hurt with suburban voters -- even by Democrats. If they don't embrace him, then there's a certain African-American element that causes you pain."

"So," he added with a chuckle, "it's just one of those wonderful situations."

Sharpton, not surprisingly, contends that this mind-set is mistaken.

"I think that's a gamble that's going to blow up in their face," he said. "Where has anybody suffered from this? Hillary has not suffered in the polls. Hillary has gone up, and 75 percent of New Yorkers disagree with how Giuliani handled [the death of unarmed security guard Patrick] Dorismond."

"They are doing more wishful thinking than scientific polling. Now that does not mean that a lot of whites don't like me or are not afraid of me but they are not so irrational as if to say that if Sharpton is involved, that they're not going to be involved."

He also contends that the attacks on him have already gone too far: RNC boss Nicholson mistakenly asserted that Sharpton referred to the owner of the store that burned down in Harlem and said he wanted to make "this cracker suffer." In fact, it was another protester who made that statement.

Scarborough also erred: His resolution originally asserted that Sharpton had referred to Jews as "bloodsucking Jews" and "Jew bastards." When it was pointed out that there was no evidence that he had said any such thing, he quickly changed the legislation.

Finally, there are Sharpton's relationships with the state's Republicans. Some contend that he is in fact, a stalking horse for the conservative politicians he claims to despise.

Indeed, in 1986, he endorsed conservative Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato over his liberal Democratic opponent, Mark Green. Sharpton later acknowledged that the endorsement was a "quid pro quo" for a $500,000 federal anti-drug grant promised by D'Amato to a Brooklyn group headed by Sharpton's mentor.

In 1992, Sharpton spent the better part of his Senate campaign attacking the leading Democratic candidate -- Abrams, whose investigation a few years earlier concluded that Brawley had lied -- who eventually lost to D'Amato.

Since then, he has met with other prominent New York state Republicans, including party Chairman William Powers, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Gov. George Pataki. Sharpton said that he never assisted Pataki's election efforts in 1994. But he acknowledged that his longtime associate, attorney C. Vernon Mason, attacked then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 on the radio.

So, if Republicans are going to tar Democrats by citing their many meetings with Sharpton, he says he may counter the attacks with -- touchi! -- footage pointing to his many meetings with Republicans over the years. This plan, which he calls "my imaginary blitz" would also include a reference to his meeting with Gov. George W. Bush at a minister's convention in Houston in 1997. (They discussed mundane policy issues, Sharpton recalls. "What do you talk to George Bush about," he asks rhetorically. "You're not dealing with Bertrand Russell.")

It is unclear if Sharpton is serious about such plans, but he clearly enjoys the attacks. "They are spinning in their own bias to where they are losing a sense of what's going on politically," he says of his critics, "and I want to help them do it. I want them to get all the way into the bath water before I turn the heat up."

By Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

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